He’s infamously not-so-fond of mainstream music videos (describing them at a London screening as “polluted rivers”), but when we saw that Jem Cohen would be visiting the Wex this Friday, January 15, to introduce his new, critically hailed film Counting, a dig through his music-video archives proved irresistible.
After all, the experimental filmmaker has worked with some of the best—Patti Smith, R.E.M., Elliott Smith, Jonathan Richman, Sparklehorse, Vic Chesnutt, Blonde Redhead, Butthole Surfers and The Ex—plus onetime Next@Wex band Godspeed You! Black Emperor, for whom Cohen has made “background films” for their live performances. And, notably, Cohen’s partnership with musicians includes Instrument, a full-length documentary about “one of the most important punk bands of all times” (A.V. Club), fronted by Ian MacKaye, Cohen’s high school classmate.
“Punk was one of life’s great portals for me, from very liberating high school encounters with radical entities like the Cramps and Bad Brains to renegade history and economics lessons sung by the Mekons, the Minutemen, or the Ex. I don’t think punk can or should be pinned down as just a youth thing or a loud/fast thing. I see punk spirit in Thoreau’s refusals to conform and in photos by Helen Levitt,” he told The White Review in 2014.
Rolling Stone counted the Cohen-directed “Nightswimming” and “E-Bow the Letter” as two of R.E.M.’s greatest music videos, saying of the latter, “Jem Cohen's dim, romantic clip for "E-Bow the Letter," R.E.M.'s 1996 collaboration with Patti Smith, is ideally suited to the sound and sentiment of the song, which remains one of the band's finest and most distinct compositions. Cohen's lonely street scenes are gorgeous, but the images of Stipe performing with the band in a room lit by hundreds of tiny white lights are among the most elegant and breathtaking shots in the band's filmography.”
Below, check out videos that see Cohen marrying his outstanding direction with great music, and be sure to see him introduce and discuss Counting, “a wistful meditation on the world, its beauties, mysteries and injustices” (New York Times) this Friday at 7 PM.
Patti Smith, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
R.E.M., “E-Bow the Letter”
Lucky Three: An Elliott Smith Portrait
The Ex, “3:45 am,” from Building A Broken Mousetrap
Sparklehorse, “Maxine [Nice Evening (Transmission Down)]”
Xylouris White, “Chicken Song”
Anecdotal Evidence (feat. Vic Chestnutt’s “At the Cut”)
Intro to Chain, with music by Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Want a bit more Jem Cohen? Check out this Italian TV clip of a circa-2000 interview where he discusses the making of Interview, as well as—at minute 8:30—more of his unvarnished opinion of music videos as a genre: